Despite Barzilai Squabble, Haredi Parties May Be Better Off in Gov't

A member of the Satmar Hasidic sect scurried around near the group's study center in Jerusalem yesterday yelling, "Jaffa, gentlemen, Jaffa!" Eventually the black-clad man succeeded in filling the rented van destined for Israel's coast.

The air conditioning was on, but inside the fast-moving vehicle the air was warm and dense. Why Jaffa and not Ashkelon, he was asked, where the discovery of ancient graves under Barzilai Medical Center has caused such a stir?

"Ashkelon is not easily accessible - the police have blocked all the roads. We're going to Jaffa," said a tired-looking yeshiva student in the backseat.

At the same time, MK Menachem Eliezer Moses of United Torah Judaism announced that he supports the party's departure from the coalition in protest against the government's handling of the Barzilai affair. Moses' spiritual patron, Rabbi Yisroel Hager of Vizhnitz, has yet to utter a word on the controversy, and will probably wait to take his cues from more senior rabbinical authorities. It seems unlikely that UTJ will leave the coalition. Still, making fiery declarations doesn't cost its rabbis an agora. The political leadership continued yesterday to make concessions to the Eda Haredit, the hardline sect based in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem's Mea She'arim quarter.

A wide ideological gap separates the party's more mainstream strain represented by Moses (as well as MK Moshe Gafni and Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman ) and that of Rabbi David Shmidel, chairman of the Atra Kadisha organization that purports to safeguard Jewish graves. Placards in Mea She'arim yesterday proclaimed that Shmidel is engaged in a noble fight on behalf of "our brothers buried in Ashkelon."

In private discussions, not only are Litzman and Gafni's constituents tired of the Barzilai battle, so are the lawmakers themselves. They know they have become embroiled in a quarrel not of their own making, and now wish they could find a way out.

The people who make the most noise about the media blitz against the ultra-Orthodox actually secretly wish that the Barzilai fiasco would just disappear. None of the MKs would admit as much in public, particularly because it would be interpreted as a violation of the wishes of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, who has told Litzman to take a hard line on the issue.

It seems that the high-ranking rabbis themselves are showing the most restraint. None have ordered their followers to join the protests at Barzilai, which have thus far been led by only the most zealous hardliners. Still, even zealots know how to put on more convincing shows of force than the one currently brewing in Ashkelon.

Is it possible the Barzilai ado will develop into a genuine crisis? Haredi politicians and commentators believe there is no chance the rabbis will order their lawmakers to quit the coalition, certainly not now.

The simple reason is that United Torah Judaism has nowhere to go. According to an official at Degel Hatorah, the non-Hasidic "Lithuanian" faction of United Torah Judaism, "We don't need to leave the coalition to make [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's life difficult. This time we'll sit quietly, next time we won't."

What will happen before next time? The answer depends partly on pressure on the Haredi Knesset factions from within and without. From the outside, UTJ appears united, particularly in the face of a series of High Court petitions against the ultra-Orthodox education system and blunt remarks about the community by opposition leader Tzipi Livni and in the media. From the inside, however, one sees a divided faction, leading to intraparty disputes.

Hamodia, the newspaper linked to Litzman's Gerrer Hasidic sect, treats the affair in muted tones, while Hamevaser of MK Meir Porush is much more belligerent.

In his own mouthpiece, Yated Ne'eman, Gafni wrote, "The government is conducting criminal activity both unthinkable and unacceptable."